In our minds the hotel, the joints, and the clinic served as a funnel to the courthouse. Located on a massive hill overlooking the river, many of the injureds’ wrongs were settled in this place of justice. Much of what we were able to witness in premature form in the bustling bars came to fruition in the stark, austere courthouse. My friends Ben and Richard and I had enjoyed many a dandy dispute in the cavernous old courtroom. We had been in the gallery when pistoleers, liars, and evildoers received their just desserts.
Aside from my father, my favorite barrister was one F. W. Bergeron of Natchez. We would hurry to the courthouse whenever Lawyer Bergeron was in town to try a case. He would arrive from Natchez on a fine-blooded horse and spend the night before the trial at the Washington Hotel. He cut a strange and whimsical figure. Lawyer Bergeron was tall yet his body was unfortunately proportioned. He usually dressed in a loose coat beneath which projected his spindly legs in riding breeches and boots. A tricorn hat covered his small round head. The courtroom was his kingdom; he was an eccentric genius who was said to drink two quarts or more of Porters wine during a given day although he never seemed to be under the influence. He was noted for his acid tongue, and many feared and hated him. Politically he aligned himself with the people and against the silk stocking upper crust. When he rose to defend his clients, a crowd never failed to be drawn to the virulent abuse which he uttered in a high and piercing voice. Before entering the court house, he would put his still burning cigar in the crook of a bush near the courthouse steps to be retrieved at day’s end.
On this particular day in early August, the case in question was a suit brought by Ma Brewer of local fame against Colonel Hungerford’s oldest son, Bugs Hungerford. The defense team was Frederick W. Bergeron and my father. Richard, Ben, and I were in the gallery in gleeful anticipation. The litigation alleged that Hungerford’s Livery Inc. had contracted to deliver Ma Brewer’s just-shipped new piano from the waterfront to her place of business, which was likewise her domicile. A careless and unscrupulous half breed working for Hungerford’s son had undertaken to move the piano while his ne’er-do-well employer was sleeping off a frolic. The man lit his cigar, tossed his match out and accidentally set afire the tarp covering the instrument. Ma Brewer claimed that she had intended to offer lessons to the children and likewise improve and elevate the culture of our little hamlet with the instrument. In truth, most were aware of the fact that the piano was stuffed with a large quantity of laudanum for sale and use by her customers. The tincture of opium had gone up in smoke with the piano.
The courtroom was standing room only. Most eyes were locked on Ma Brewer as she posed as an ordinary woman desiring to improve our community. In fact she was a she-wolf, the most successful madam north of New Orleans. Ma Brewer wore diamonds as large as gravel with a pendent of ruby lost among the lush billows of her breasts. Her slightest movement appeared to be accompanied by an expenditure of breath out of all proportion to any benefit the movement could give her. She toiled down the courtroom aisle and reached the plaintiffs’ table, brandishing a wooden rosary in her left hand. She wore the black silk gown in which we were accustomed to seeing her and a large hat savagely flowered. The boys and I were enthralled; we were most gleeful when she opened her purse and sipped from the small phial kept therein.
What air was moving, and it was very little, entered the open windows and crawled over the heads of the spectators. This small breeze did nothing to erase the lingering smell of tobacco and stale sweat and various musty odors. One could sense in the large courtroom the disputes and bickering which had been settled over the years. Through the open windows we could see those gathered on the courthouse lawn who had not gained admittance to the trial. Many of them were pitching gold coins back and forth between holes in the hot earth under the old pecan tree as they awaited the start of the case.
Summarily the judge was announced and the proceedings began. Judge Guider we knew to be a severe, single-minded prelate. He was considered a just man, fixed in purpose and accustomed to the pursuit of a moral obligation to the end. He had in his nature no sentimentality and carried himself in the eye of God and man with an inclement and profound devotion to duty. In addition, he was Ben’s father.
Twelve jurors were drawn from all classes; a sometime farmer, a doctor, a bartender, a musician, a barber, a preacher, a janitor, a cook and four more that I can’t picture now. They crowded into their box with faces already gleaming with moisture from the heat. They looked like a true cross section of our fair city; the barkeeper mused tenderly behind the rigid travesty of greasy hair and sleepy eyes. The cook seemed preoccupied; the musician was nodding off after a long night; the barber had scissors and comb in his coat pocket; the farmer had a drooped head and an open mouth with a vast, puffy face without any mark of age or thought whatever. The preacher had a majestic sweep of flesh on either side of a small blunt nose, and next to him the doctor was well-groomed and dressed nicely. Lastly in the end chair lounged the janitor, a fat man in a shapeless suit; dirty sleeves fell out of his coat and rested on his hands, which were rimmed with black nails.
The spectators within looked toward the bench with intent faces as white and pallid as the floating bellies of dead fish. They craned their necks for signs of fear and excitement in the worn yet imperturbable face of the plaintiff. But Ma sat upright and resolute awaiting the formal opening of the court. Many of Ma’s customers were scattered through the courtroom. In addition, the notorious gunmen Towhead Smith, Dice Dickenson, and Duck Decatur sat behind Ma Brewer. These bravos were in her employment. Towhead was from Missouri and was dressed like a river boat gambler. He referred to himself as a professional duelist and he had a half dozen killings to his credit. He never let a soft fight pass him by. The other two men were dandied up in the finest of men’s furnishings and were likewise most dangerous.
Mrs. Brewer did not so much as look at any of the above mentioned men. She knew that she must comport herself to be the lady she imagined herself to be. Encouraged by her repeated sips of the cordial in her purse she fully intended to defend herself vigorously. The determination exhibited caused one to think that the issue in question, a burned piano made in Cincinnati, was a matter of national importance.
Ma was joined at her defense table by Mr. Dukay Volney. Volney had relieved the monotony of our fair community several weeks previously when he arrived by steamboat to research a book about the ancient mound builders. But we could tell that most of his research had taken place in Ma’s back room. He lived over Ma’s bar and was reputed to be one of her most loyal customers. The prosecutor, a barrister named Red Jacoby, sat next to the plaintiff and fidgeted with his papers. His vest was open over a slight paunch. He reached over and patted Ma’s gloved hand and assured her that if she would be herself all would go well. Those sitting near enough to overhear this whispered comment laughed aloud. Mr. Bergeron and my father took their place as defense attorneys beside Bugs Hungerford, who appeared to be hungover.
The attorneys unsheathed their verbal rapiers and prepared for vigorous parry and thrust. The joints were well oiled now and the battle began. Lawyer Jacoby was meticulously determined to observe the outward formalities of legal procedure; he asked every question as if witnesses knew the answer to what he inquired. Witnesses answered loudly and clearly or tepidly depending on whether they wanted the answer heard or not. Jacobs hoped to garner the cost of the piano, shipping, and damages for his client; Bergeron and Dad were willing to pay for the piano and nothing else.
During the course of the morning, dialogue became acrimonious. Berger excelled at exposing the profound dissimulation wherewith the plaintiff had deceived the people of the jury. He brought out the irony underlying the proposal that a notorious madam would teach little girls of our fair and religious community to play the piano. His repeated description of Ma Brewer’s perfidy had the entire courtroom in a state of riotous laughter.
When Ma Brewer took the stand in the middle of the afternoon, she watched disdainfully as Fred D. Bergeron approached the witness box. During cross examination her answers were surprisingly vigorous and at the same time cautious and shrewd. Her occupation had taught her to collect her thoughts; not for a moment did she lose her composure. Even the accusatory and mischievous questions failed to disturb her equanimity. She measured her responses and gave exact figures with regard to the cost of the instrument, the shipping, and her plans to teach the young. The cordial had taken hold of her and it was as if her responses were given not to the pettifogging lawyer before her but to the only genuine and sincere judge of all history itself. In fact, she even wiped a tear from her reptile eyes.
When Hungerford’s son took the stand his replies were often ambiguous. He made lame attempts to incriminate Ma Brewer’s hidden friends. Bugs categorically denied the charges and stated that a collusion of nefarious villains was threatening his business. Objecting to this position, Ma’s attorney grew more aggressive. In language drafted in the emotional style of the day, he challenged the defendant’s testimony. It had no effect. The rigmarole came to a grinding halt when the trial ended and the jury shortly thereafter gave its verdict. Col. Hungerford’s son, Bugs, was exonerated and held liable only for the cost of the piano.
After the trial ended feelings ran high; dozens of Ma Brewer’s customers, led by Towhead, Dice, and Duck, gathered angrily outside the courthouse. Most of the customers were bitter because the drugs had been lost. Leaving the courthouse that afternoon was akin to running a gauntlet. The writer, Dukay Volney, seemed to be especially resentful about the loss of the laudanum. He was irate and accosted Fred W. Bergeron as he left the building. Attorney Bergeron responded by caning Volney as the writer cowered under his blows. Towhead, menacingly holding the butt of his pistol, then threatened Bergeron and Hungerford’s son with their very lives. At that point, most good citizens dispersed for home and hearth with ominous forebodings. Ben found Bergeron’s stogie in the bush beside the courthouse steps where the lawyer left it in his haste to evade the hostilities and gave it away to some man who was hoping to smoke the remains.
Next morning bright and early Hungerford’s son was murdered while eating breakfast at the Washington Hotel. Bugs was well known in town, and most thought correctly that he had devoted himself wholly to hard drink and low company and thus was lost to the world. But however ungainly such behavior may be it did not justify his lamentable fate. While no proof yet existed with regard to who may have been the perpetrator, suspicions abounded. Sheriff J.H. Sanderson arrested Towhead at Ma Brewer’s early the next morning. Sheriff Sanderson was able to retrieve Towhead from the bar without firing a shot only because he had surprised the desperados while they were counting their winnings at Ma’s place from the night before. Even with the element of surprise, the situation had been tense and it helped to have a deputy accompany him with his double barrel scattergun loaded with buck shot. Sheriff Sanderson and his deputy slowly backed to the door with guns leveled and Towhead in cuffs. Dice, the sneering elegant, held his heavy pistol cocked and pointed down and Duck flashed his Bowie while fingering the derringer in his waistband. Both men threateningly followed the sheriff and his deputy to the door.
Thinking surely no more excitement would take place that day, Richard, Ben, and I snuck upstairs at Ma Brewer’s and put an irritated opossum in Dukay Volney’s room. Word was that the writer was out researching the mounds but we had seen him going into a side room unzipping his trousers and we knew he would be indisposed for a time. Then we retrieved our bateau and fished until after dark.
Our local citizens immediately became incensed after the killing. The men of the town demanded vengeance for Bugs Hungerford and they got it. Having had a gut full of these nefarious sharpers the men of our village decided to hang the murderer. They had hopes the other scalawags would leave after the lynching. After dark that very evening, about the same time we were coming in from fishing, a lynch mob broke into the jail and wrestled Towhead into a tumbrel and took him to the edge of town to expiate his crimes upon the limb of an ancient oak. We docked our boat and carrying the fish we caught we followed the crowd to the edge of town.
Citizens gathered under the oak, their minds clouded by hatred and whiskey; they hurled scurrilous lampoons at the prisoner. Stripped of his weapons and his hidden derringer, Tow looked harmless. He was a middle-aged man with a distended belly and a double chin. He was hung by his neck until dead. Most present agreed that he seemed neither to hear nor see; the savage noise and sights of the crowd under the tree made no impression on him. Perhaps the bitterness of death was already past; even his advisories admitted the rascal was bold and impudent to the very end. Ben, Richard, and I were stunned; we left the hanging and the fish we had caught earlier that day and returned to our homes to gather our thoughts.
Afterwards, nothing changed in our town. The hanging of Towhead did not have the desired result. Ma Brewer brought in another rascal from New Orleans; he joined Dice and Duck and was even more threatening than Towhead had ever been. Ma continued to thrive and prosper and found another source for laudanum. Behind the scenes, our male citizens continued to support Ma and her brothel. Nothing changed at all except that Bugs and Towhead were gone. Our little river town was exposed like all river towns for what it was; it was diverse, prosperous, and full of people breaking the law impudently. The boys and I were stunned with what we discovered; by roaming our village and seeing the hanging we thought that the evil was only in our town. But by maneuvering our town we continued growing up and learning about life. We received an advanced education with regard to what life was like and eventually we learned that every river town was like ours and that all of us had potential for evil within.
Ma finally passed away and was given a lavish funeral attended by the leaders of the community. With her business closed, the ruffians she had depended upon moved to Memphis and secured similar positions in the same field. After Ma’s death, another madam named Blonde Victoria arrived with fallen girls and opened her business which likewise thrived. And the river kept rolling.
Jim Biedenharn is a native of Vicksburg, Mississippi, a historic town located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers—the very southern tip of the famed Mississippi Delta. His roots run deep in the region, which in turn runs deep in his writing. Biedenharn has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Southern Mississippi, a Master of Divinity degree from Vanderbilt University, and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Drew University. Writing under the nom de plume “Dr. Jas. O’Phelan,” his stories first appeared in Canopic Jar: An Arts Journal in 1987. River City Ebb & Flow: Dr. Jas. O’Phelan’s Stories from the Wicker Basket under this Fragile Balloon (Canopic 2017) is his first book.